Conservation, night stays set MSC’s private island apart

Conservation, night stays set MSC’s private island apart

OCEAN CAY MSC MARINE RESERVE  —  As
guests return to MSC Cruises ships from the line’s recently opened private
island here in the Bahamas, they’re likely to retain images of white-sand
beaches and turquoise waters, moonlight paddleboarding and sunset cocktails.

But what they did not see is perhaps what makes Ocean Cay
MSC Marine Reserve most special: a four-year effort to transform this former
sand-excavation site into a tropical paradise and a continuing commitment to making
the island a hub for coral restoration and marine conservation.

Ocean Cay opened Dec. 5, adding MSC to the ranks of cruise
lines with private destinations in the Bahamas.

A beach cabana on Ocean Cay. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill

While other private islands have made headlines recently
with bells and whistles usually found on the ships themselves, MSC designed
Ocean Cay to offer a “natural Bahamian island” experience.

The herculean effort to create what is essentially a model
of marine restoration out of a treeless island with 1,500 tons of industrial
waste on and around it guided that approach.

“We spent four years cleaning it up,” MSC COO Ken Muskat
said. “They’d killed the marine life. We spent four years regenerating the
marine life and bringing it back. We have watersports and volleyball and so
much to do. But we want to keep the natural beauty of the island as the focus.
That’s the point.”

To underscore that point, MSC is working to designate 64
square miles of the sea around the island a marine reserve and is investing in
a major coral restoration project. It is also building a lab on the island for
marine biologists and students to lead restoration efforts. Guests will be able
to participate in projects such as planting coral back in the ocean.

“We’re not trying to build an amusement park on the water,”
Muskat said.

A shop on Ocean Ca, that sells only products made in the Bahamas.

A shop on Ocean Ca, that sells only products made in the Bahamas. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill

The 95-acre island, still a work in progress  —  MSC
planted 77,000 trees and shrubs here, and it will soon be much lusher than it
is now  —  has eight beaches: some wavy, ocean-facing
ones, others surrounding a calm lagoon. Guests can kayak, stand-up paddleboard,
snorkel, play in beach volleyball tournaments, walk 165 steps to the top of the
lighthouse or get a massage in a beach cabana.

There are plenty of bars (I counted 10) and several shops
serving coffee, ice cream and goods, including one featuring only products made
in the Bahamas.

There is one main buffet area serving Caribbean-style salads
in addition to standard cruise ship fare, and complimentary food trucks have
been spread out on the island serving a very limited burger and hot dog-focused
menu. 

MSC plans to put more specialized menus on the trucks once a
second buffet area opens later this year. As the waters around the island
regenerate and start growing local catch like conch again, look for a Bahamian
seafood truck serving conch fritters, lobster rolls and fish tacos using
locally caught seafood.

Just as on the ships, MSC Yacht Club guests have their own
part of the island with a private beach and restaurant.

Ocean Cay also stands out for being the only private island
currently offering nighttime activities on every call, possibly because the
island is only 65 miles from Miami, so ships can still arrive there the next
morning.

I enjoyed sunset cocktails at the Lighthouse Bar while
others had their feet in the sand along Sunset Beach. A Bahamian Junkanoo “street
parade” wound along the island’s paths to Lighthouse Bay, where the beach was
set up with chairs around fire pits. Twice a night, the 115-foot lighthouse
puts on a light show. A DJ kicked off a dance party on the beach, while guests
still on the ship watched from their balconies and the open decks.

Staying late also means unique excursions such as stargazing
on the beach and nighttime stand-up paddleboarding on boards fitted with LEDs.

Muskat said the Ocean Cay experience fills what was a gap in
the line’s offerings.

“This has helped fill that hole,” Muskat said. “Our aim is …
for people debating MSC or another vacation, they use Ocean Cay as a reason to
book MSC Cruises.”

Ocean Cay has proven so popular, he said, that future cruise
itineraries could visit twice.

“There’s a lot of demand from guests,” he said. “They say
they just can’t do everything in one day.”

And with so many beaches and private cabanas throughout,
unlike on the pool deck of most cruise ships on a sunny day, there was plenty
of space.

“One of the greatest comments we get is nobody feels crowded
because there are so many places to spread out,” Muskat said. “The other is
they wish we were here longer because there’s so much they didn’t get to see.”

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